Join me in Conversation with Kate Griffin
Please give a warm Coffee Pot welcome to Historical Fiction author, Kate Griffin’s.
Mary Anne: A huge congratulations on the release of Victoriana: A HWA Short Story Collection. Could you tell us how you got involved in this fabulous collection of short stories?
Kate Griffin: I’ve been a member of the HWA for around four years now. Writing can be quite lonely, especially for someone like me who until quite recently went into an office every day and thrived on the conversation and gossip. It’s great to be part of a supportive group of knowledgeable, amusing, opinionated people again.
I joined the HWA because I write about the past. My Kitty Peck series, published by Faber and Faber, is set in London’s Limehouse during the early 1880s. Kitty is a music hall artiste who reluctantly inherits three shabby venues along with a much more sinister bequest. The four books in the series take my daring, spirited and rather mouthy cockney sparrow on a topsy-turvy journey through every layer of Victorian London’s society during which she discovers a great deal about herself and about her family.
The Kitty Peck books are deliberately melodramatic and theatrical. I’ve enjoyed taking well-worn Victorian tropes and turning them on their heads and inside out to present a very knowing version of the era. Rumbling hackney carriages, cane-twirling toffs, pea-souper fogs and painted street-corner harlots are the visual motifs of many a Victorian drama – both on page and on screen - and I’ve loved deploying them, but I also wanted to write about the Limehouse described to me by my nan* Hannah.
Born in Limehouse in1898 (it’s still a shock to think of her as a Victorian) Hannah told me about the hard lives of the men and women who worked on the London docks. She made me aware of the historic diversity of Limehouse where, ironically, the riches of the world and some of its poorest inhabitants quite literally came ashore to ‘feed’ the engine of empire. And she described the music halls that provided a glittering, raucous, lime-lit respite from poverty and hardship. In my books, I’ve delighted in showing the tarnish beneath the spangles worn by the performers, pitted against the darkness beneath the plush, rich sheen of highest echelons of Victorian society. It’s all a charade!
I was fortunate that my former working life enabled me to visit many wonderful old buildings. As Communications Manager for SPAB (The Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings), Britain’s oldest conservation charity, I was privileged to see the fantastic Wilton’s Music Hall in Graces Alley off Cable Street in London’s East End before it was lovingly repaired and restored to its former glory.
Wilton’s was another massive inspiration for the Kitty Peck series While my SPAB colleagues carefully examined woodworm, blown plaster and cracks that day, I inhaled the drama of the building’s past. My co-workers went back to the office with a detailed conservation plan and I went back with an idea for a book!
In recent years I’ve contributed reviews and articles to Historia, the HWA’s online magazine. The programmes I reviewed were set in the Victorian era – naturally - and it was no hardship to watch some great TV and write about it. The invitation to write a short story for the HWA’s Victoriana collection, came out of the blue last Christmas. I suspect it was partly because of those reviews, but I also hope it’s because beneath the melodrama, gothic pastiche and gaudy penny dreadful trimmings of the Kitty Peck series, there is also passion, research and authenticity.
*I am mounting a one-woman crusade to bring back ‘nans’
Mary Anne: All the books in this collection are set during the Victorian era. Why do you think this period in history is still really popular with readers?
Kate Griffin: I think the Victorian era is instantly recognisable. Visually – largely thanks to film and TV – it is very familiar territory where lavish drama is framed by mist, mourning and mahogany, and played out to a soundtrack of rustling crinolines, rumbling wheels on cobbles, the clopping of horses and the tapping of a villain’s cane. I sometimes wonder if we (writers and readers) find a sort of ‘cosiness’ in all those trimmings? I’m quite wary of that. My books have been both praised and criticised for their ‘gritty’ quality and the fact that I don’t shy away from the seamy underbelly of the Victorian era where obscene poverty and hardship were the flip side of grand balls, candlelit dinners and sprawling country estates.
We are tantalisingly close to the Victorians and the great writers of that age – Dickens, the Bronte sisters, Elliot, Collins, Mrs Gaskell etc. – still speak directly to us in a language that is almost our own. We can also research newspapers and archival documents from the era that are easily understood and oddly crisp and fresh beneath our fingers. But we must never forget, the Victorian era is completely alien.
In The Go Between, L.P. Hartley wrote, ‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’ I think that’s a rather perfect ‘warning to the curious’ (to steal the title of a ghost story by the marvellous M R James, born in 1862). We can never know what the era of ‘Victoriana’ was like because none of us have been there. Our writing is based on a thousand different, highly personal glimpses of the past. We Neo-Victorian writers have all created our own worlds from a mental patchwork.
I also think that we are fascinated by the pioneering spirit of the Victorian era. It was a time of extraordinary discovery when science really began to slip the shackles of superstition. The Victorians thought they could do anything. You see that in the confidence of their architecture and the explosion of industry. Nothing got in the way of profit. Their arrogance and self- belief were breath-taking and – in terms of Empire – troubling in the extreme. The era was the fiery crucible of our modern age, for good and ill.
Ultimately, the title of the collection, ‘Victoriana’ is a playfully cosy word for a time that was anything but.
Mary Anne: Could you tell us a little about your story, The Trick of It, that can be found in the collection?
Kate Griffin: As I mentioned in answer to your previous question, the heady mixture of science and superstition that pervades the Victorian era is fascinating. Their growing technical brilliance was set against the questioning of age-old certainties. If the Victorians could build bridges, tunnels, viaducts, aqueducts, steam trains etc. – why not contact the dead? Does that seem so extraordinary when they could bend the world of the living to their will?
When I was invited to contribute a story to Victoriana, I was delighted to find out that the tale could feature one of my characters. I knew exactly who to turn to.
At the end of the 19th century spiritualism was very fashionable. In my last book, Kitty Peck and the Parliament of Shadows, I had fun writing a séance scene featuring Madame Toth-Varda, a terrifying Hungarian medium who was trying out for a place on the bill in one of Kitty’s music halls. Although the character appears briefly in the book, I leave a hint as to where she goes next. The Trick of It is set during Madame’s journey across the Atlantic to New York. I hope my séance in a storm at sea is chilling and entertaining.
Mary Anne: What do you think is the most challenging aspect of writing Historical Fiction?
Kate Griffin: To be brutally honest, the most challenging aspect for me is getting my bottom into the chair and actually writing something. I am a terrible procrastinator, always finding a hundred things to do to put off the awful moment of having to open my lap top and start typing. Bizarrely, once I start, I often find it hard to stop.
When I’m immersed in a story the most important thing is to maintain authenticity. No matter how weird or whacky the plot or the characters, I try to make sure that the world they operate within is as accurate as possible. There’s nothing worse while reading historical fiction than to come across a glaring anachronism. Immediately you lose faith in the story and the writer.
Research is important, but it can be a honey trap. There’s a fine balance between peppering your story with fascinating, genuine period detail and bombarding your reader with so much carefully hoarded knowledge that your plot disappears beneath a mountain of redundant information. Too little research and you fail to evoke a period, too much and you bury it! It’s like walking a literary tightrope.
Mary Anne: What advice do you have for aspiring Historical Fiction authors?
I think my main piece of advice is outlined above, beware the perils of research. Don’t fall in love with your fascinating investigations and studies so much that they stifle your storytelling. Also, don’t use research as an excuse for not writing. It’s tempting to feel that you can’t sit down to write until you know everything about, say, the topography of the London sewer network in 1881, but unless you actually start to write your story, you will never have the chance to use that knowledge. My simple advice is, write more, research less. You can always go back to correct and embellish what’s there on the page (or computer screen).
My other key bit of advice, is to enjoy yourself!
Mary Anne: Thank you so much for taking time out of your day to chat to us.
If you would like to find out more about Victoriana then you know what to do – SCROLL DOWN!
A HWA Short Story Collection
“The Victorian era, full of crime and elegance, comes to life in this diverse and dramatic collection. Read your favourite author, or find a new one.” Richard Foreman, author of Raffles: The Complete Innings
Immerse yourself in the Victorian period through a diverse collection of thrilling short stories.
Read about some of your favourite characters from established series, or be introduced to new writers in the genre.
The stories in Victoriana bring the Victorian era richly to life, with crime, murder and scandal set against the backdrop of the Boer War and a rapidly changing Victorian society.
This striking new collection, brought to you by the Historical Writers' Association, also includes interviews with each author.
Find out more about their writing processes and what attracts them to the Victorian era.
Victoriana is a must read for all fans of historical fiction.
Authors & Stories Featured in Victoriana:
Elisabeth Gifford – The Last Resort
Hilary Green – The Choice
Kate Griffin – The Trick of It
Richard James – Last Orders
Carolyn Kirby – Ladies and Gentlemen
R.N. Morris – The Complainant
Vayu Naidu – A Madurai Mystery of Victoriana
Sophia Tobin – The Unwanted Suitor
Tom Williams – Some People Think We Are Very Backward
Robert Wilton – The Widow and The Wagon
The Trick of It
By Kate Griffin
Full story published in the HWA’s short story collection Victoriana
The scene is set aboard the ocean liner City of Berlin midway across the Atlantic Ocean.
The gaslights along the walls of the little salon dimmed. The only light now came from two candelabra taken from the table. These were set either side of a makeshift stage formed from a platform where a grand piano had stood. The instrument had been pushed back against the painted panels.
It had taken some time for the cabin staff to effect this transformation. Those who had chosen to attend the ‘diversion’ had taken refuge in the small reading room until summoned to return. Perhaps it was wishful thinking on her part, but as they waited, Clara thought that the rocking and groaning diminished and that ship seemed easier on the ocean.
Returning to the little salon, she saw that the long dining table was now stowed in sections against the walls and that the diners’ delicate gilt chairs were arranged in four neat rows before the platform.
She hadn’t wanted to come, but George and Mrs Tallon had persuaded her.
‘Death is not the End.’
When Captain Kennedy read out those words, Clara had felt a chill breath on the back of her neck. At the same moment, from the corner of her eye, she had seen one of the candles splutter and die.
‘It’s just a game, my dear.’ Mrs Tallon had said. ‘It will be fun.’
George escorted her to seats in the second row. He turned to continue his conversation with the Tallons, who were positioned behind them. Clara moved her skirt as the Oxford student took the seat next to her. In the reading room, she had heard him disagree with the bishop, who did not approve of the evening’s diversion.
‘The literal meaning of occult is hidden,’ he had said, jabbing a ringed finger. ‘And it is my belief that the Lord means such things to remain so.’ The bishop had withdrawn in the equally censorious company of Lady Barbara Wretton.
The student nodded at the platform. ‘I must admit to finding this most interesting, Mrs Sinclair. As a man of science, I do not share Bishop Rickson’s distaste for such experimentation. Besides, I am quite sure the woman is a charlatan, a stage trickster…’ He faltered, presumably recalling Clara’s background. He cleared his throat and flicked at some imaginary lint on his knee. ‘Well, I am sure it will be entertaining at the very least.’
Clara smiled and examined the rest of the diners who had chosen to be diverted. Their number had dwindled to around twenty. The young couple had gone to their cabin and Mr Bellman had deserted his wife, who was now sitting next to her friend Mrs Tallon.
Captain Kennedy mounted the platform and clapped his hands. Silence descended as he gave a small bow and stepped to the sides to blow out all the candles. The salon was suddenly quite black. Clara heard mutters and rustling.
The captain’s voice sounded in the darkness.
‘It gives me great pleasure to present to you, Madame Liljana Toth-Varda.’
The ensuing silence was almost alarming. It seemed to Clara that a stillness had entered the salon. She was not aware of the rolling of the ship or movement or sound from anyone sitting around her. Then, as if from far away, a single low note was played on violin. It lingered, vibrating in the air, longer than Clara thought possible and then came a melody coaxed from lowest and most mournful notes of the strings.
After a minute or so, she brought her hands to her ears. It wasn’t that the playing was bad, quite the opposite, in fact. It was that she could actually feel the notes thrumming through every nerve and sinew of her body. She had the oddest sensation that she was the instrument being played.
The sound stopped abruptly. Tentatively, Clara moved her hands to her lap. A light flared. In the gloom, a dark figure bent to light the candles. Finally, when the platform was bathed in a pool of flickering light, the figure moved to the centre.
Madame Toth-Varda was a tall, wand-like woman. The narrow cut of her dark gown emphasised her unusual height. Her black hair was twisted in a sheeny coil high on the top of her head, which added to her presence. Whorls of jet beads glittered at her shoulders, around her sleeves and in the folds of her skirt. As she breathed, the jewels rippled like the scales of a serpent.
But it was not her height or singular dress that produced a muffled gasp from several members of the little gathering. Chalk-white powder made the woman’s face seem to float above the beaded collar of her dress. Powder had settled into the grooves around her mouth and nose, bringing an eerie glow to her hawk-like features. Against this pallor, her long black eyes, the lids painted beetle-wing green, seemed at once too large for her face and set too deep in her head. Clara couldn’t look away from those eyes.
‘Greetings.’ Madame Toth-Varda rolled the ‘r’. ‘My music calms them.’
The deep voice was richly accented and compelling. It seemed to pluck at Clara’s mind like the music of the violin that she now saw resting on the piano. Madame took a deep breath and folded her arms. She closed her eyes and the green lids fluttered as she spoke again.
‘Come, dear friends. You have heard my call. Now you will obey my summons. The journey is not far. The threshold may be dark, but let the light and the echo of my song guide you.’
The little salon was suddenly very cold. George tapped Clara’s shoulder and whispered. ‘Do you know her?’
She shook her head. In all her time with Logie, playing the halls and stages from Edinburgh to Plymouth and three months touring America, she had never seen anyone like Madame Toth-Varda. The woman was chanting now, her voice strengthening as she repeated the summons. Perspiration left glistening snail trails in the white powder on her cheeks.
Suddenly she stopped.
Very slowly Madame Toth-Varda stretched out her arms. She breathed deeply and the jet beads on her bodice winked with the rise and fall of her breast. Her painted eyelids snapped open.
‘And now we go to work.’
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Kate Griffin was the winner of the 2012 Faber /Stylist Magazine competition to find a distinctive new voice and character in crime. The resulting ‘Kitty Peck’ series navigates the squalid back streets of Victorian Limehouse, the aristocratic corridors of power and the transgressive world of music hall - all viewed through the eyes of a young whip-smart aerial artiste (Kitty Peck) and her ‘family’ of outsiders.
There are now four books in the series: Kitty Peck & the Music Hall Murders (2013), Kitty Peck & the Child of Ill Fortune (2015), Kitty Peck & the Daughter of Sorrow (2017) and Kitty Peck & the Parliament of Shadows (2019). All published by Faber.
Kate has worked in antiques, journalism and communications. Until 2019 she was Head of Press for Britain’s oldest conservation charity SPAB (Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings). Her love of old buildings and the stories they tell continues to inspire her writing.
She lives in a Victorian house in St Albans with her husband Stephen, and a lot of dust.
Follow her on Twitter @KateAGriffin